this is...' from
PoK Magazine / story
by Steve Brydges
I wholeheartedly believed light traveled faster than sound, until November 14, 1998. That was the evening I first witnessed the Joe Morris Trio live. When the notes, textures and sounds started flying (which was immediately) from Joe Morris' guitar faster than my brain's electric impulses could process them, I knew societal evolution had begun a new chapter. Science had been shaken by its lab coat by an unassuming genius. When he took the stage, his blue jeans shirt and well-trimmed beard afforded Joe Morris a relaxed appearance, a judgment that was obliterated by his blurring fingers and the look of deep concentration in his thoughtful, dark brown eyes.
Meet Joe Morris, the man whose sound can outsprint light.
"There are points in my band when it feels like I am riding on the front of a locomotive," Morris exclaimed. "I try to get to that point on every gig. The whole playing experience for me is basically physical."
Physical. Try cerebral, too. Joe Morris is such a profound communicator with his guitar, listening to the intuitive transmissions expressed by he and his bandmates is tantamount to mental meltdown. As Morris' hands race to finish sentences his mind started, bass and percussion add punctuation and parenthetical notations. From thumbnail sketched melodies and ideas, Morris, bassist Nathan McBride and drummer Jerome DuPree create dense, beautiful and complex pieces in which a slight yet persuasive note or percussive suggestion amidst a fusillade of sound will deliver a change in mood, emotion, tempo or other dynamic shifts. The notes and fractured melodies are many, and, even when the tempo is moderate, the intensity is high.
"Playing this music is about being in the groove, but not making the groove so obvious that it doesn't have energy," said Morris. "The groove, we feel, is very low, and we play off of it. A lot of the tempos are very high, but we always know that there is a low pulse- 'boom boom.' We can take that low pulse, and we know enough about how to rationalize it. We can play these super-fast tempos and hang in this velocity for a long time and that's completely physical. That's a completely visceral experience.
"It is completely an altered state. It is a trance state, and while yr in that state, yr playing and yr trying to connect with the audience. That's what the mystical ritual is of playing this kind of music: To get it to a point where it is ritualistic and people are just drawn in- taken in, and they lose themselves. To me, this is the highest form of music to try and do that. I've played in a lot of rock bands, I still play - I have a big electric band called Racquet Club that is huge and loud and intense and really a blast...but when you get into that thing (playing jazz) where the drummer is playing so fast that you almost can't tell, and the time almost slows down 'cause everything's going so fast, yr dealing with about the highest level of energy that people can get to in an art form. That's the truth. This is the most intense thing I could ever imagine doing."
Joe Morris began playing music when he was eleven, and started playing the guitar at age fourteen. Growing up in the early 1970s, when jamming wasn't a word that would get you slapped at band practice, Morris became interested in the blues from jamming with his peers.
"I really consider myself to be somebody influenced by black music," offered Morris. "I really consider that to be influenced by black music there is a certain connection to the blues. There is a certain connection to some type of mystical meaning in the music. It is inexplicable."
Jazz, by its independent, challenging nature, avant-garde status and rich black traditions, seemed the next logical step.
"Like any other kid who is fed up with a lot of nonsense, I was looking for something that had some meaning," remembered Morris. "I think just about everything that has ever happened that is really interesting in the world has to have grown out of that. It has to have grown out of people thinking there is more to life than politics and business and people manipulating one another. I was never a hippie. I was more urbane than that when I was a kid. When I found out about jazz, I just thought it was amazing. First of all, it was a black art form. The things that people talked about were amazing. I couldn't believe what they were willing to say, and what level they were willing to discuss things on, and how far they were willing to go in sacrificing their life to get to another place in their music. It seemed to be a really noble pursuit. I was looking for something that wasn't bogus. It seemed to be something I could relate to. There wasn't any guru I had to follow. I didn't have to buy anything in particular. I just had to get an instrument."
For many, the term "free jazz" has many negative connotations, mostly related to a misconception of the art form's true culture and of the paradoxical limitations of using the word "free." Free jazz began in the 1960s when players started experimenting with chord changes. According to Morris, as players began to add extra notes in the chord changes, they soon discovered they didn't even have to play chord changes. This is not to say that people playing free jazz do not, or cannot use chord changes, as many players utilize them to great effect within their improvised and partially composed pieces. After all, as Morris said, "If yr going to be free, you don't want to not do something. You want to be able to do whatever you want." Jazz artists freed themselves from the restraints of chord structure, which allowed them to extend their blowing beyond a specified count or meter. They were free to use whatever form of expression they desired to communicate.
"If you try to make it (the genre) too fixed, chances are yr trying to follow someone else's rules," said Morris. "It is that open-ended. When it's said that's it's "free," it doesn't mean people stand up there and do whatever they want, although sometimes they do. What it means is the players use whatever they think is appropriate."
The very name free jazz implies freedom from structure and composition, that everybody can do whatever they want, whenever they wish, and it will work. Not true. Players need to be skilled and have a keen understanding of the context in which they're playing, in order for a session to click.
"It is like going to a party and having a conversation with five people, and thinking three of them are people you would never want to speak to again," explains Morris. "Then you meet someone you really click with, and you could talk to for a long time. Playing this kind of music is speaking about high things in yr own language. It is really old things, too. There is an unmentioned understanding people have- people know when they're playing right."
Listening is also of utmost importance.
"I play with people who don't know how to do it, but not for very long. It is like talking to someone and somebody was next to you talking over what yr saying right after the other person asked you a question. It is really annoying. Good players listen to each other, and know how to accent- to complement. The expression, 'complement'- when you play behind somebody, it is complementing someone."
Free form improvisation is not mutually exclusive of composition. Most free jazz artists sketch a rough outline for their pieces, or at least an opening melody or theme. This provides the players with a springboard or focal point to direct their energies.
"What you do is you set up musical structures that let you think freely," Morris explained. "It's rare that anybody can just get up and play whatever they want two nights in a row and not have some repeat in it. There's really never been anybody that does that. Everybody that plays this kind of music has, at least, an internalized system for how they do it. It is almost like standing up and improvising a monologue. You know what yr going say, but you don't know exactly how yr going to put it together.
"I'm not ashamed of the idea that a lot of it is composed, because anybody who tries to do this will understand that in order to be fluent in this language, you have to study hard- very, very, very hard for a very, very long time."
He added, "Understand that it is a very formalized art form, just like any other art form. People talk about oral tradition in folk art and the oral tradition in jazz. People talk about it a lot, so there is a lot to be said, and there is a lot to learn. Just to push this skateboarding thing, because it is a skateboarding magazine- I think it is O.K. for me to do connect with that. For me, if I decided I wanted to be skateboard tomorrow, I couldn't go out and get a skateboard and do it really great tomorrow. I'd have to talk to all the people I could who are involved in it, and they'd tell me about some guy who invented some trick in California that people do. He invented it, and he's great, and another guy embellished that trick. Then they thought they needed a new board for it, so they modified the board. Then people started wearing different shoes, because people were slipping off the new boards. Eventually, people began doing stuff on steps. That's what jazz is like. In order to understand what's happening in it, you have to talk to people. You have to read about it. You have to listen to it. You have to listen to it a lot. Mainly, you have to trust that the people in it know what they're doing."
Perhaps, like skateboarding and snowboarding, gaining knowledge in jazz comes from the understanding of freedom of movement. The first trick someone ever pulled may have happened by accident, but if they didn't put trust in their freedom of movement, they would still be doing turns in their driveways, not ollie-kickflip-varieling across cement mixers in the rain.
"Also, understanding how you would have to stand on the board in order to go across the rail. I know- I was athletic enough at one point in my life, that I know you have to be able to visualize it and have a sense of what you might have to do. Once you understand that, you can try it."
You must learn to walk before you can run. It is important to develop a base, whether it be in skateboarding, jazz music, or scholastics. The basics are vital if one is to build a foundation from which to pursue knowledge, understanding and, consequently growth. That and practice, practice, practice. These are keys to the evolution of which Morris spoke. Comprehending jazz is not beyond anyone's grasp, given they take the correct approach.
"I think anybody can understand anything. When I read pok magazine, I thought how that elevates the art of skateboarding to that type of practice. Maybe it is a Zen practice, where you mirror yr own growth to where you can ride on a hand rail for 40 feet. That's how you understand yr growth. Playing this kind of music is identical to that. The thing is that people have been doing it for a long time, so they understand a lot about the practice. They understand what they can get out of the practice and they also understand what they can't get out of the practice.
"I think anybody listening to the music, if they approach it as something in the best sense, they'll find a structure in it and they'll find what it does to them, and however they find it is O.K., because there is no correct way to understand it. Just like any other expressive art, like abstract painting or theatre or anything that's beyond yr basic narrative structure, you interpret the meaning. The meaning is open to the listener's interpretation."
To interpret the meaning, one must first comprehend the message, which requires repeated exposure to the language. While the initial listens to the music of Joe Morris may prick yr brain like thousands of tiny pins poking a pin cushion, with concentration and an open-mind, the jazz art form's rarefied language will slowly reveal itself. Implicit in all of this is a notion an old friend of Morris' used to say, that anything people do that is difficult is about human evolution. Within the sound of free jazz, raising one's level of consciousness becomes as exciting as the music itself. Within the sound of the Joe Morris Trio, societal evolution awaits. It is time to turn another page.